More thinking about the Law

My previous post doesn’t tell the whole story - of course - how could it? Following a conversation with a friend, I’ve decided to expand on it a little. This expansion is a bit ‘rough and ready’ - it hasn’t been subject to my usual level of diligence, so it may have even more lacunae than usual. Bearing that in mind, here goes.

Many Christians treat the following part of the Gospel of Matthew as ‘doubling down’ on the need to obey the commandments.

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment…” Matthew 5:20-22

I have my doubts though, especially given that (a) the commandments were never aimed at Gentiles and (b) Jesus fulfilled, completed, accomplished, all of the requirements of the Law of Moses - so that we aren’t bound by it - see my previous post.

So what does Jesus seem to be saying in the verses above?

First of all, how can our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees? Surely, given how assiduous they were in following the law, we can barely begin even to approach their level of holiness, let alone exceed it? I think we have to remember that this is Jesus, in ‘full on’ rabbi mode, speaking to a crowd - he’s going to use every rhetorical trick in the book to get his audience’s attention - so he may very well not be speaking literally - just like a modern speaker, he’s likely to be using hyperbole, exaggeration, metaphor, simile, etc., to try to get his point across.

I realise that, for some, the idea that we might take Jesus’ words less than literally is anathema. But consider something he says later about sin…

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:29-30

Do you really think he was meaning his hearers to take this literally? And do you know anyone who has ever obeyed this literally?

Absolutely not; and I certainly don't know anyone who has - and I doubt whether you have either.

Deep down we know(I hope we do anyway!), instinctively, that this is hyperbole - it’s intended to shock us enough to make us think, to examine ourselves, our motives, our hearts, and perhaps to ‘amend our ways’, but we should know that Jesus doesn’t mean us to take it literally. The same goes for the quotation from verse 20.

Looking again atMatthew 5:20 from a different angle :

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Who do we know whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees?

Yes, that there Jesus. There’s only Him who truly ‘measures up'.

Paul tells us, in his letter to the Romans

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24

So because of Jesus, our righteousness actually does, effectively, exceed that of the Pharisees - though, obviously, not in the way Jesus’ hearers originally understood.

I think too, that in this passage Jesus is addressing issues of the heart. The Mosaic Law appeared to be ‘external’ - in that obedience to its strictures could be taken merely literally - don’t kill and you’ll be okay. And that seems to be how the Pharisees and other teachers of the law interpreted it. However Jesus takes a different, deeper, view and places a fresh emphasis upon it - that mere outward obedience isn’t enough. If you don’t actually kill your neighbour, but still harbour hatred towards him, you might be fulfilling the letter of the law, but what he’s saying is that you’ve missed its essence entirely - the idea that it should change your heart.

God seems to make a habit of loving his enemies - so that they don’t remain His enemies, but become friends. That, I think, is what Jesus is actually getting at here!

And I think there’s a fairly stern lesson here for the church. All those groups of people who the church ‘others’ (so that they’re part of ‘them’ rather than part of ‘us’) and makes feel unwelcome, for whatever reason - LGBTQ+, Muslims, Roman Catholics, atheists or whoever. God is telling us, right here in this passage (as well as in other places) that He doesn’t want them as enemies, but as friends. And, if you’re not okay with that, I fear that you’ve missed the point too.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022